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Leadership: Our Better Nature

We like him because he makes us feel good about ourselves. And we dislike her because she makes us feel inferior. That’s an assessment from political pundit, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, about why people like Barack Obama and dislike Hillary Clinton. The point is debatable; Matthews makes his living by stirring the political pot. The assessment may be fun for political musing but it raises a very crucial point about leadership.

We like him because he makes us feel good about ourselves. And we dislike her because she makes us feel inferior. That’s an assessment from political pundit, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, about why people like Barack Obama and dislike Hillary Clinton. The point is debatable; Matthews makes his living by stirring the political pot. The assessment may be fun for political musing but it raises a very crucial point about leadership. Men and women who get us to follow them are often those, who in the words of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural address, appeal to our “better angels of our nature.”

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When we feel that the leader is well-intentioned and wants what’s good for us, and our organization, we naturally want to follow. And if that leader can cause us to feel good about ourselves, too, that is special indeed. The history of civil rights teaches us this; people embraced Martin Luther King, not only because he was smart, eloquent and moving, but by following him we felt better about whom we were. To a much lesser degree, but very visceral way, rooting for our hometown sports team – be it Yankees or Dodgers, Patriots or Chargers, Celtics or Lakers – makes us feel good because we assume they are one of us. [Of course they are not, but we feel as if they are.]

Leaders who make people feel better about themselves are very powerful and can accomplish great things. In ancient Greece, Epanimondas rallied the yeoman class of Boetia to fight against the hated Spartans and twice defeated them in battle, the second time destroying Sparta’s ability to invade again. As historian Victor Davis Hanson writes in Soul of Battle, Epanimondas’ appeal was directly tied to his ability to make the farmers feel good about taking up arms against the enemy that had brutalized them for so many years. In business, people embrace Whole Foods because they like the selection of foods, natural and otherwise, but also because they feel good shopping in a place that treats its employees well and lives its creed of sustainability as much as possible.

Appealing to the better self can be an important aspect of leadership. While it may be hard to cultivate in leaders per se, it can be developed in the approach to work and its effect on others. Here are some ways.

Live it. Leaders who inspire followership for a time may be good speakers and radiate charisma, but leadership who inspire followership over time are those who live their example daily. Contrast the vagabond collegiate coach who hop-scotches from school to school in pursuit of more cash and more acclaim with the high school coach who stays at one school preparing his (or her) athletes to be better players as well as better students and better people. Those coaches live their example every day in the hours they invest coaching, cajoling, challenging, and counseling the kids they teach. Every city can boast at least one, two or three such men and women. The live the example and it is real.

Show the impact. We live in a skeptical society; people have options, even at work when they are the payroll. Compliance is one thing; commitment is another. One way to nurture commitment is to show people how their products or services impact customers or clients. For a time, Saturn, a division of General Motors, invited customers to visit their factory; it was a time for Saturn workers to meet Saturn owners. Not only was it a marketing event, it was an event where workers could see the fruits of their labors. And it made them feel good about what they did.

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Recognize the outcomes. When people achieve something, make something of it. Good news email blasts do not cut it. You need to show people that their work matters. For example, when a manager does his job, and along the way reduces turnover and grooms employees for advancement, honor him for it. Make it known how special this individual is. Turn this manager into a master manager where he can teach what he knows about people to others.

Encouraging people to follow a leader because they make us feel good has limits. Take the example of Huey P. Long, the governor of Louisiana. He rode the wave of populism all the way to the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge. Long, a charismatic speaker with genuine folk appeal promised much and delivered better roads, hospitals and schools. But to achieve his aims – and to stay in power – he used bribes and kickbacks to grease his way. At the time of his assassination, he was a virtual dictator with intentions on national office. Yes, people liked Huey because he seemed one of them but the price was too high and the dream died with him.

Rallying people to a cause greater than themselves enriches leadership. Persuading people to follow you because they like how they feel about themselves cannot happen overnight; in fact it may never happen. But if a leader can persuade people that they can achieve something for themselves, and feel good about doing so, then the leader has the power, together with the organization, to accomplish much good.

Source:Chris Matthews Hardball MSNC 12.11.07
Victor Davis Hanson Soul of Battle New York: Anchor 2001

John Baldoni • Leadership Expert: Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com